No jobs, just harassment
The Government is aiming to reduce the number of long-term beneficiaries on Jobseeker Support by 30 per cent from 78,000 to 55,000 by 2017, says Social Development Minster Paula Bennett. Unfortunately, this goal is not accompanied by any plans to create jobs.
In the March quarter of 2012, the unemployment rate rose to 6.7%; this translates to 9,000 more people out of work. The official unemployment rate reflects only those who are actively looking for work. It is not reflective of the youth or Maori unemployment rates which are roughly four times and twice the national rate respectively; nor is it reflective of the unemployment rate for women which rose in the March 2012 quarter from 6.4% to 7.1%, its highest since 1998.[i]
In July 2013 about 130,000 people will move on to the new Jobseeker Support, of which 78,000 will have been on working-age benefits for more than 12 months.
What is Jobseeker Support?
The Jobseeker Support benefit will replace the current benefits: Unemployment, Sickness, Domestic Purposes Benefit for parents with children over 14 years, Widows with children over 14, and Domestic Purposes Benefit for Women Alone.[ii]
The introduction of the Jobseeker benefit is part of a rationalisation of all benefits into three categories.
There is an expectation of work for all people on the Jobseeker benefit. The problem is that there aren’t any jobs for many of these people.
In 2011, roughly 5,000 people did not reapply for the unemployment benefit due to requirements that a new application be made each year. Approximately half of those did not complete the required process suggesting that it wasn’t a lack of need, but rather the lack of support through a difficult and degrading process which made it impossible for many to finish the process.[iii] There is little to suggest that the new Jobseeker benefit will be any different. In fact, it is likely that Work and Income will have performance targets and bonuses similar to those of ACC[iv] to get people off benefits if such targets don’t already exist.
Penalise the poor
There has been a concerted campaign by the right to demonise beneficiaries. Since the days of Ruth Richardson, the environment of Work and Income (formerly Social Welfare) has been very punitive. It is likely to become increasingly so with the introduction of these new benefits. People will be forced into long stand-down periods before they can receive a benefit, attendance at pointless courses, required to report in, and subjected to birth control advice from case managers.
The mass media has contributed significantly to constructing a paradigm in which beneficiaries are depicted as lazy and deceitful. The stereotype of the DPB mum is even more viciously constructed: it is a racist, woman-hating portrait that bears little resemblance to the average DPB recipient’s life. It is in this environment that punishing the poor for being poor becomes widely acceptable.
Casualised and precarious: the new work
In the March quarter of 2012, part-time employment increased by 13,000 and full-time employment fell by 3,000.[v] The move by employers away from permanent full-time employees towards a part-time, casualised workforce is part and parcel of an anti-worker government agenda that has further entrenched the power of employers and weakened both individual and collective employment rights. The recent Ports of Auckland dispute is a perfect example of the way employers are seeking to virtually enslave its workforce by tying them to a casualised roster where little notice of work is given. It was only through the commitment of the workers and widespread public support that the wharfies held their ground. In much of the rest of the workforce, there is little collective activity and solidarity.
Along with the 90-day bill, the limitations placed on union access, and the removal of the requirement to finish collective negotiations we can expect further attacks on the rights of working people in the immediate term.
Groups like Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) and the Wellington Peoples Centre have been leading the campaign against beneficiary bashing and against welfare reforms. Protests organised by AAAP following the budget targeted John Key at his first post-budget speech, and kettled-in Business Round Table attendees at a budget luncheon.
Depending on the economy, the militancy of these actions may increase in coming days. As groups converge around issues, making the links between benefit cuts, education cuts and anti-worker laws, the scale of resistance grows.
Let us remember that in the 10 years of the Labour government those at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum were ignored and forgotten, and nothing was done to combat the image of the dole-bludger or DPB mum. A change of government will not remedy the gap between rich and poor, only genuine solidarity between those in work and those out-of-work and/or unable to work can bring economic justice for all.